“But why even ask the question in the first place?” she asked me, her voice inching higher and tinged with irritation. The same irritation that I recognized in mine.
“What?” I shot back, incredulous at her question. “Why the hell not?”
The truth was, I was as frustrated with myself as I was with my three friends right then. A post-yoga discussion during our relaxing, fun-filled weekend at the Oregon Coast had turned a little edgy corner, all thanks to my navigation. Four women, each one of us with backgrounds as diverse as the next, plopped down on the sofas and began thumbing through the fashion and style magazines on the coffee table. The midwest-bred, salt-of-the-earth mom and Crossfitter. The saucy, smart-assed Newfie, embarking on a new life in a new place, dealing with aging parents. The well-traveled, well-heeled, up-for-anything loyal Albertan who brought us all together. Oh, and me. The conversation that afternoon had started out light, to match the mood. We chatted about manicures and pedicures and massages and things to wear and things to eat and things not to eat. But before I knew it, my trigger had been pulled.
It was a comment about dieting. I felt the trigger as soon as it went off and even said to my friend, “Wow. Just you saying that takes me down a dark, dark rabbit hole.” My reaction, stemming from years steeped in compulsive dieting, anorexia, body dysmorphia and general hatred of myself and my body, even while looking outwardly “perfect.” I felt squirmy inside, as though I wanted to bolt and go think by myself. But I didn’t. I stayed, my legs curled under me on the sofa and dug in deeper. I started asking questions of my friends. Questions about why do we feel the need to be “pretty” and whose standards are we measuring our “prettiness” by? Why do you feel better with polished fingernails? Or wearing a smaller size jeans? Who determines that? And do you really think most men sit around and spend an hour talking about their weight and their clothes and their body hair? And why is that?
My frustration rose as I could tell each friend was taking my questions personally. My intention was for us all to think bigger, globally, as women and think deeper, beyond what the stock answers are. Instead I heard them assure me that their husbands care a lot about their own bodies and fitness and that they would never tell them–their partners, to go put on makeup or go on a diet. Sigh. I knew I was failing. And I realized my friends were taking it personally because I had taken it personally in the first place. I couldn’t help but wish I had one of my siblings there to articulate my point better. Because I was sure they could.
We got up to get ready to head into the artsy-fartsy shops of Cannon Beach. There was a part of me fighting back tears. A part of me felt alone. That very same part of me that fought back tears in elementary school, engaging in a friendly, teacher-moderated debate about the McGovern-Nixon presidential race decades earlier. Me, a proud Democrat, against them, the whole rest of the class, very, very pro-Nixon Republicans. All of us, too young to really know what we were saying, but instead parroting back arguments we had heard around the dinner table from our parents. It didn’t matter. I felt frustrated and alone and wanted to dash out of the classroom and cry in the bathroom. “Why won’t they just think?” I remember sobbing to myself. They teased me when my candidate lost the election that year. (Okay, so I know I eventually got sweet revenge, but still…)
I never shared that story with my parents because I was too embarrassed. I like to think they would have been proud.
Back shopping in Cannon Beach, I eventually separated from the rest of my friends and went off to explore on my own. As I browsed through the shells and t-shirts and sunglasses in the gift shops, I heard my friend’s voice in my head, over and over again. “But why even ask the question?”
Why? Because I can’t not ask the question.
Along with a love for music and art and good cooking, my parents instilled in us the impetus to ask “Why?” I still have the “Question Authority” button my father gave me when I was a teenager. Get a group of my siblings together for dinner and the conversation will be peppered with discussions about politics, religion, the environment and social justice. Luckily, we all share pretty much the same philosophies on the big topics, so there aren’t arguments as much as deep dives into “Why?” I listen, I contribute a little and I learn a lot. When we have our annual extended family vacation in La Push, our nightly beach fire is always accompanied by the requisite “Campfire Questions.” It’s never enough to simply answer the question. “Why do you think that?” will always be a follow-up. As a lovestruck young woman, I spent a holiday or two with my new boyfriend’s family and delighted in the fact that everyone just drank and laughed and talked about guns. No thinking at all. My infatuation lasted less than one year before I realized how much I missed my comparatively sober, provocative kin.
It can be exhausting, this thinking and questioning and connecting the dots stuff.
So I do yoga, which gets me out of my head and into my body. I take long hikes in the woods and look up at the sky and feel small and inconsequential. My friends remind me to let loose and have fun. I go see live music that is full of pure energy and art and big feels. I give my brain a break.
But to not ask the question is to not be true to me.
Having been a writer all my life, I am an observer. I watch and I wonder why. Truthfully, it consumes me. About a year ago, I watched a video of Amanda Palmer giving a talk about writing to writers at Grub Street, a leading literary arts center in Boston. I had poured myself a cup of coffee on a Friday morning and settled in for her 30-minute presentation. Within the first five minutes, I was crying. She was describing me. She knew me. That kid who always wondered “why” and thought too much and felt so separate from everyone else felt understood and seen as I watched her speak. (You can watch the whole thing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OHsxLy1_lU )
This is how she began:
“If you are a writer or any kind of artist, this may be a familiar story. Do you remember when, as a kid, you were outside on a field trip, maybe even in a literal field let’s say, on a day-long journey with teachers and students? Outside of the usual rhythms of school life and recess and the lunchroom and familiar spaces. And you found yourself straying from the topics and the tasks at hand. And you made discoveries and connections, wandering off with your own imagination and you were excited with your discoveries in those moments in a new space and maybe you held them up proudly, saying, “Did you ever notice that this looks like this? That the shapes on this leaf look like the cracks in this puddle of ice look like the veins on the back of my hand look like the pattern on the back of her sweater?”…Connecting the dots between things. And maybe you thought it. And maybe you had the impulse to say it out loud and if you said it, you may have been encouraged. You may have delighted and amused those around you, or you may have been discouraged. And you may have been told, calmly, “This is not the time for that. ….this is time to get back in line and answer the correct questions.” But your urge was to connect the dots…”
Later that evening, my three friends and I skipped across the sandy beach, giggling and frolicking like toddlers, taking turns challenging and then holding each other up in handstands only to watch each other crumble to the sand, laughing until we cried. Not thinking too much. Settling into our four (borrowed) chairs to watch the rosy sunset over the Pacific Ocean, I felt nothing but warmth from our quirky quartet, each equally bemused by the fact that we all somehow wound up together on this beach in Oregon on this early autumn weekend. When we returned to the chairs back to the fire pit we had borrowed them from, a young couple was sitting there. The woman looked at us and smiled. “We’ve been watching you the whole time. It’s so great to see four women laughing together and having the time of your life.” We agreed. It was pretty spectacular.
At the house after dark, one of my pals and I laid on our backs on the deck, watching for shooting stars in the clear sky. “You were pretty feisty earlier. Provocative. Like you were trying to get a rise out of us,” she commented. “Yep.” I agreed, “I was. I just always want to think deeper. Ask more questions. Wonder why. I got frustrated, for sure. Maybe it wasn’t the time or the place.”
And maybe it wasn’t. I’m okay with that.
I returned home Monday evening exhausted. Having fun and asking questions all weekend long is hard work. I remembered that I had a writing workshop the following Saturday and quickly went online to double check the details. I shook my head and laughed as I read the title: “Asking The Right Questions: Self-Inquiry In Memoirs.”
I’m thinking that might just be the right time and place.